A Dancer's Body

Maya Horowitz | Guest Writer 

When you think about scandals in modern sports, the first issues that come to mind are the following: domestic violence in the NFL, academic fraud in the NCAA, racism in the NBA, and steroids in baseball. All of these sports have been vilified in recent times for both the behavior of their athletes and the lack of prompt response and just discipline by their commissioners. 

Yet, despite the shortcomings of these leagues in dealing with some of these cases, players are—at the very least—regulated by a system of checks and balances, no matter how unjust. What about sports that aren’t regulated by a central governing body? Take dance.  If a scandal happens in the dance world, who is going to hold the guilty party accountable? On top of that, since dance isn’t in the mainstream media, people are not exposed to the realities and cannot use tools such as social media to pressure higher-ups into taking action. Dance faces deep concerns about body image, the treatment of dancers, and eating disorders. This is a problem, and one that deserves more attention.

Dancers are athletes, and their bodies undergo just as much strain, scrutiny, and judgment as that of any professional male athlete.  Put bluntly, dancers are pressured to maintain a physique that borders on dangerous with regards to health.  Take ballet for instance. Classic ballet dancers have to look a certain way. You can be skinny, but that’s not always enough—ballet companies want very specific measurements. The ideal classical dance physique is required to be very slender with a long neck, a short to medium-length torso, long legs with long arms that match, and high insteps.  

Failure to meet these requirements can result in losing employment, which can lead to depression, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts.  In an era of media-driven scandals and headlines, more attention is warranted around the concerns of dancers, and other unregulated sports in general.  Would the mass media and fans tolerate this in a more popular sport?

Like any professional athlete, dancers are relentlessly reminded of what their body looks like and how it is perceived. The majority of dance classes are taught with mirrors, so there is no escaping this constant fear of what we look like or do not look like. I know this both from personal experience as a dancer and from stories of friends in the industry.

One choreographer I’ve worked with told me that when she was pursuing a career in ballet, the director of a company told her she had to lose weight because she wasn’t thin enough for the ballet world. He also told her that she was ‘different and didn’t quite fit in how everyone else did.’ This harsh criticism—which is all too common in the ballet world— caused her to have an unhealthy eating disorder that led to her to eventually leave ballet altogether.

As a dancer, it’s easy to see both sides of the struggle: If you only had to lose those ten pounds to get the job, no dancer would pass that up! On the other hand, no one should risk their life for it. I would never want to get so sick and weak that I couldn’t dance again. The dance career already is so short—why make it even shorter? The lucky ones usually are in a company from about age 14 or 15 and are a soloist by age 18, and then it starts to end by age 25 (or later, if you’re blessed.)

Hopefully one day the world pays as much attention to the plight of dancers and the unrealistic expectations on their bodies, which are on par with the demands put on any professional athlete or Olympian. Dancers do not expect to be on television and discussed on ESPN like football or basketball, but the morality surrounding the use of the human body needs to be a part of the discussion as we work out the ethics of sports and athletes.